Chatham County Schools extends universal masking amid Omicron surge

District also updates its quarantine policies to match state’s reduced guidelines

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PITTSBORO — Amid higher COVID-19 cases counts following the holidays and the Omicron surge, the Chatham County Board of Education voted 3-1 to extend universal masking on all CCS campuses during the second day of its mid-year retreat Tuesday, with board member David Hamm again dissenting.

As was also the case at last month’s meeting, Hamm made a motion to remove the requirement for masking among athletic teams. The motion failed to receive a second.

“The only consistent thing we are dealing with here is inconsistency,” Hamm said of COVID-mitigation guidelines. “It’s very frustrating.”

Hamm questioned why the district was still requiring masking when children tend to have milder COVID symptoms, and when the most updated masking guidance recommends N95 or KN95 masks. Board members Del Turner and Jane Allen Wilson both said masking protects others who are more vulnerable during times of increased community spread; Assistant Superintendent for Operations Chris Blice said the Chatham County Public Health Department said 3-ply layered masks the district uses still work in mitigating spread, even if the N95 and KN95 masks work best.

Board member Melissa Hlavac was absent for the Tuesday portion of the retreat.

Blice presented data to the board that highlighted the rise in COVID trends since the board’s December meeting.

There were 25,445 new COVID-19 cases across the state Wednesday, according to state data, following multiple record-setting days of new cases in January. In Chatham, there have been 774 new cases in the last week.

Since September, the board has taken a vote regarding its masking policy each month, in accordance with state law. District administrators and local health officials have long followed public health guidance recommending that mask mandates remain in place until the county’s transmission rates fall below the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s suggested levels. The county’s three public charter schools all also still have universal indoor masking policies in place.

According to the CDC and the state health department, schools should continue requiring universal masking in counties with higher levels of community transmission.

“I’ve said from the beginning, this is not a perfect situation,” Superintendent Anthony Jackson told the board at its Dec. 13 meeting. “Our primary core work is teaching and learning, so our role and our focus — the only thing we promised at the start of the school year was to provide a regular routine, we tried very hard to do that.

“If I had my way, it’d be over tonight,” Jackson said of the mask mandate at the time. “I don’t have my way. So, Mr. Chair, it is our recommendation that, consistent with state law, we ask the board to continue the universal masking until our next meeting where you might be able to, at that time, adjust your positioning.”

Jackson first hinted at moving toward optional masking at the board’s November meeting, but by the next month, Chatham’s community spread had increased from substantial to high spread.

At December’s meeting, Chatham had 128 cases per 100,000 people and a 6.37% positivity rate, according to CDC data — bringing it up to the highest level of community transmission.

Now, those numbers are up to 1,039.34 cases per 100,000 people and 21.82% positive rate, as of Tuesday, with 10 new hospitalizations in the last week.

CCS administration has long cited masking as the most important tool for keeping students in the classroom by mitigating case transmission within school buildings. There have been 631 cases among students and staff since the first day of school, and just two clusters, according to the district’s COVID dashboard on Wednesday.

The district’s positive case rate has lingered well under 1% the entire school year, which has consistently been lower than the transmission rate in Chatham as a whole, save first week back at school following the winter break, Jan. 1-9, which saw 174 active cases, or 1.7% of the district’s population.

As of Tuesday, there were 83 active cases among students and staff.

Easing of quarantine rules

Last week, state health officials reduced the length of time students need to quarantine for COVID-19, providing extra flexibility to school districts that require face masks, like CCS. In those districts, unvaccinated and partially vaccinated students who’ve been exposed to COVID-19 can stay in school as long as they don’t test positive.

The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services shortened recommended quarantine times to match those recommended by the CDC in late December, with the state Board of Education approving the shorter quarantine period on Jan. 6.

District officials have previously cited the state’s K-12 StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit as its primary guidance. Executive Director of Student Services Tracy Fowler said the district automatically updates its protocol to match the state health toolkit.

The state’s new quarantine period policies come as many parents and school administrators alike have raised concerns about the number of school days missed by students who ultimately don’t test positive for COVID-19.

The quarantine period used to be as long as 14 days away from school. Since the start of this school year, people exposed to someone who later tests positive for COVID–19 are not required to quarantine if both people were wearing masks.

CCS Assistant Superintendent of Academic Services and Instructional Support Amanda Moran said in December that quarantine requirements accounted for a lot of the district’s increased absences — even with the eased policies regarding masking.

In early December, for example, she said about 80 to 100 Siler City students were absent in a single week.

“When they backtracked all those (absences) out, it was only a handful of kids that were out for reasons other than the quarantine piece,” she said at the time, adding that the district saw lower attendance rates at its higher poverty schools.

CCS social workers attributed those trends in part due to the barriers that come with getting a negative COVID-19 test — transportation, cost or finding an appointment — which allow students to come back to school before the completion of a 10-day quarantine period. Since November, all district schools have offered free weekly testing to students and staff through Raleigh-based Mako Medical.

Breakdown of all the updated quarantine guidance

For exposed individuals, the day of exposure is considered day zero. For cases, the day of symptom onset is day zero, and for individuals without symptoms, the day a positive test was taken is considered day zero.

• Positive antigen test, no symptoms: If the person has a negative repeat PCR/molecular test performed within 24-48 hours of their positive antigen test, the positive antigen test can be considered a false positive and the person can immediately return to school; or the person can return to school five days after the date of the positive antigen test, as long as they did not develop symptoms. The person must continue to mask for an additional five days to minimize risk of infecting others.

• Positive PCR/molecular test, no symptoms: Person can return to school five days after the date of their positive test as long as they did not develop symptoms. The person must continue to mask for an additional five days to minimize risk of infecting others.

• COVID-19 symptoms + positive test: Person can return to school when it has been at least five days after the first day of symptoms, or it has been at least 24 hours since the person had a fever without using fever-reducing medicine and other symptoms of COVID-19 are improving. The person must continue to wear a mask for 10 days after the first day of symptoms.

• COVID symptoms + no test: The same guidance for symptomatic people with a positive test applies.

• Person exposed in a mask-optional setting: Person must stay home from school for five days after exposure; they can then return if asymptomatic but must continue to wear a mask for an additional five days. They should test on day five, if possible. If symptoms occur, the person should immediately isolate until a test either confirms or rules out COVID-19.

• Symptoms + negative test and no known exposure: The person can return 24 hours after last fever (without using fever-reducing medicine). The same applies to someone with COVID-like symptoms who receives an alternate diagnosis that accounts for the symptoms.

Fully vaccinated and boosted 18-year-olds, or students 5-17 who are fully vaccinated, do not need to stay home from school if they are asymptomatic after close contact with someone who tests positive. The person must continue to wear a mask for 10 days after the exposure and should get tested on day five if possible.

Additionally, someone with close contact doesn’t need to quarantine if they had a confirmed case of COVID-19 in the last 90 days.

Other elements of CCS COVID-19 protocol

• Masking protocol: Universal indoor masking “with fidelity” (the proper type of mask, worn over mouth and nose) is required at all district campuses, regardless of vaccination status. As of now, masks are optional outdoors. Additionally, the district requires 3 feet of social distance.

• Data on district cases: The district will update its weekly case reports, including any clusters, on its website daily, and post finalized and archived reports every Friday by the end of the business day. Last year, the district reported minimal clusters, suggesting that cases present in school buildings were the result of community spread and not school spread.

CCS’s reports will be posted online.

• Lunches: Last year, students ate lunch in their classrooms to maintain social distance, and were encouraged to eat in a 15-minute period. Students removed masks to eat, and were only allowed to socialize once they put their masks back on. This year school principals may choose whether students eat in the cafeteria, classrooms or outside.

Students have a 30-minute lunch period but are strongly encouraged to eat in 15 minutes or less. If they are eating inside, closer than 6 feet apart, they may not talk until masks are back on.

Additionally, breakfast and lunch are available at no cost to CCS students for the 2021-22 school year, thanks to a federal extension.

• Bus rides: All schools require passengers and staff to wear masks on buses and other group school transportation. State guidance doesn’t require distancing.

• Is there protocol for when the district would move online, in the event of case surges? Short answer: no. Last spring, district officials suggested that CCS might off-ramp from in-person classes should too many staff members get sick with COVID-19 or be forced to quarantine to teach and carry out school functions.

Under state COVID policy, local school boards have the authority to make day-to-day decisions “concerning whether shifting individual schools or individual classrooms that are providing in-person instruction to remote instruction is necessary due to COVID-19 exposures that result in insufficient school personnel or required student quarantines.” Local boards must report any shifts by a school or classroom from in-person to remote instruction to the N.C. Department of Public Instruction within 72 hours of the shift.

As of now, students cannot enroll for the district’s virtual academy until the spring semester, as the academy requires a semester-long commitment.

Cleaning procedures: Under updated state guidance this year, schools no longer need to do symptom screenings for students and staff at the beginning of a school day. Disinfecting and cleaning processes — formed in conjunction with Chatham County Public Health Department and the district’s supplier of custodial supplies — include daily cleaning of touch surfaces, cleaning of buses after morning and afternoon routes as well as frequent cleaning of main offices, reception areas and restrooms in schools.

Reporter Taylor Heeden contributed to this report.

Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at hannah@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @HannerMcClellan.

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